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 Chapter Nine

 

The Rescue Teams

 

 

 

 

Back on the ship, as Rifkin slept fitfully in his cave, the professor, Zorig, Falon, and his officers sat grimly in the officer’s lounge.  Along with most of the ship’s company, the students and technicians were in their pods, as children should be, their exhaustion too great for them to hold vigil any longer on Rifkin’s behalf.  Although the professor was aware of Falon’s moods, he had never seen him this way before.  Falon, who had never liked Rifkin, had almost written him off as a lost cause.  Most of the commander’s officers felt the same way, and even Arkru’s own chief technician was pessimistic about ever finding Rifkin on time.

            “I know you grieve for Rifkin,” Falon spoke gently at first, “but, while some of us look for him, others must go on with our mission.  The ark is far from being filled with Irignian creatures.  Professor, you think we need four rescue teams—one to cover Zone One, one to cover Zone Two, and a third and fourth to patrol the beaten paths.  I’ve thought about this, and I partially agree.  But we must face four concerns in this dilemma: Rifkin’s limited supply of air, damaged radio, vulnerable life-support system, and the possibility his suit might be torn.  After the established time limit decided by his air supply, we must go on from there.  We must finish our expeditions on this forsaken planet then rendezvous with the Mother Ship as planned.  Our emotions can guide us only so far.”

            Zorig, who felt guilty for his wish that the troublesome Rifkin would never return, was the only one at the informal meeting to side with the professor.  Nevertheless, he spoke what was in his heart.

            “Rifkin might already be dead,” he said, half hoping, himself, it was true.

            “If he isn’t yet dead,” Remgen exclaimed coldly, “he will be by morning!”

            “As I said,” Falon looked directly into Arkru’s eyes, “we can’t wait forever for him.  Unless he shows himself soon, we’re not going to be able to find him in that thick cloak of green.  He could be anywhere… if he even stays alive in the darkness tonight.”

            “I don’t care how impossible it sounds,” the professor demanded, stomping his foot, “we must do our best to find Rifkin.  He’s alone out there.  We all heard his voice.  He said he was on a volcanic rock of some kind.  Zither saw this rock Falon; so did your officers.  Undoubtedly, he’ll head back to the ship on his own.  He might even locate the crawler and find the ship by himself.”

            “You’re assuming he survives Irignum’s night,” Dazl countered, clasping his head with his four digit hands. “It staggers the imagination to visualize what goes on out there in the daytime!  Can you imagine what goes on at night?

            “We must save poor Rifkin!” Arkru looked for agreement in the room.

At this point he needed his students’ support.  Even the cautious Zorig seemed to see Rifkin as a lost cause.  “There-there,” he murmured to the professor as if he was consoling a small child.

            The professor was beside himself with worry and perhaps, they all suspected, a measure of guilt.  He now excused himself abruptly from the meeting.  Zorig hastened after him to the bridge where Third Mate Kogin sat watch, barely awake after today’s effort in the jungle.  Several of the younger team members who admired Rifkin’s spirit but resented the predicament he placed them in gave mixed responses to Arkru’s call to action today.  Vimml, who should have been restricted indefinitely to the ship after his performance with Zither, had volunteered immediately.  Rezwit had wanted a search team to plunge right into the forest today, blasting away with their stunners until they found Rifkin alive and well.  Everyone else had expressed great alarm in Rifkin’s predicament, but they also displayed irritation at his foolishness and the fact that his recklessness would place them in danger now.

“I wish we didn’t have to use children in the search,” the professor murmured to Zorig as he recalled their reaction this evening. “Many of them are frightened at the prospect.  It seems unfair that I’m placing them in harm’s way.”

            “Why should we suffer for Rifkin foolishness?” groaned Zorig. “Everything was going well until he began acting like a fool!”

            “Nevertheless,” Arkru said firmly, spreading his hands with finality, “we’re going to search for Rifkin.  Falon can’t stop me.  He wouldn’t dare.  Since there are two possible directions that Rifkin is heading—back to Zone Two to find his crawler or through Zone One to reach the ship on foot, I will lead one expedition into the Zone One and Imwep will lead another into Zone Two.  First Mate Remgen and you, Zorig, will lead a third and fourth rescue team along the beaten paths of Zone One and Two, respectively, in the hopes that Rifkin will emerge on one of the paths.  Rescue Teams One and Two may have to search for him on foot!

            When Zorig didn’t respond this time, he nudged him as they stood looking out into the night.

            “Come on, Zorig,” he coaxed him gently, “you must do this willingly.  If the situation was reversed, Rifkin would save you.

            Orix appeared suddenly on the bridge with the request that they join the officers in the dining hall for a late night snack.  As they followed the navigator, the professor suspected it was a sort of peace offering by the commander for the hostility growing between them.  He was hungry and suddenly very thirsty for some cold Revekian beer.  Falon took the opportunity, as they waited for Wurbl and Imyor to arrive with their snack, to remind the professor that his first responsibility as commander was the operation of the ship.

“As long as the mother ship is deep in space,” he told Arkru, “you remain in charge of this mission, but it’s my duty to protect the crew and run this ship.  The ark’s capacity for alien specimens is a long way from reaching its limit.  Within the next few weeks, when it’s time to rendezvous with the mother ship, the collections will have to be complete. You and your students must have everything done at that point so we can depart.”

            “I understand your responsibilities.  I don’t need you to remind me of mine,” Arkru replied, smiling forbearingly as Falon fidgeted in his chair.

            He realized now how very much the commander hated this hostile world and wanted to leave.  He and his officers would be very happy if they left it a burnt cinder if it meant saving members of the crew.

            “We have, I admit,” Arkru contemplated the jungle’s treasures, “a long way to go before we can be satisfied with our collections for Irignum.  There are so many different kinds of creatures out there that must be included in the ark.  But my only concern at this point is for Rifkin.  He’s out in that nightmarish wilderness right now.” “…. We have to find that young numbskull before we continue collecting,” he whispered almost to himself. “I fear the worst has befallen my star pupil, but I can’t give up!

            “For Urlum’s sake,” Zorig blurted testily, “I agree.  We’re honor bound to find him, but you must punish him this time professor.  Once and for all you must put him in his place!

            “You never liked Rifkin,” Arkru frowned disapprovingly at his assistant. “Your concern for your little sister’s feelings about Rifkin should be at the bottom of this.  I can understand these sorts of cares.  But I believe there is something else in your attitude that belies your concern… something less noble than brotherly affection…. Is it jealousy Zorig?  Or are you afraid?”

            “No sir, that’s nonsense,” Zorig shook his head emphatically as he rose from his seat. “I’m no more afraid than anyone else who must walk into that deathtrap.  But I am irritated.  It’s just plain aggravation that you see.  Nothing else.  You’ve gone the limit in your patience with Rifkin.  Everyone else, not just me, feels this is so.  Look what he’s gone and done now.  Do you know how dangerous a rescue mission is going to be if we have to go deep into the forest—especially on foot?  Some of us could die in the process!  Is it so unnatural not to want to throw you life away for someone who never follows the rules?”

            “Makes sense to me,” Falon said, pursing his lips.

            “I’m very well aware of the dangers Zorig.  I’m also aware the predicament Rifkin has placed us in,” Arkru sat back wearily in his chair. “That’s why I need your cooperation.  Only student and technician volunteers will assist crewmembers in the rescue, and I will not allow your little sister Urlum to tag along.  This is going to be dangerous.  How do you think it made me feel to suggest using force field trap poles as bombs?  There’s simply no precedent for what Rifkin is causing us to do.  He has placed us all in harm’s way, just as I did when I endangered my class in the first place, but it has to be done. We simply can’t turn our backs on our colleague and let him die.  We have to try!

            “That calls for a toast!” Remgen declared, watching Wurbl carry a platter of samgar and vragga cold cuts to the table.  Imyor, who looked as if he might have been imbibing himself, carried a tray of Revekian beer, the officers’ favorite beverage, in a second tray.  The professor knew he was being foolish again, but he was the first to grab his mug.

            “My shipmates and comrades,” Falon offered, as they were all poured a mug of cold beer, “I make a toast to the brave students, technicians, crewmen, and officers volunteering to find Rifkin in the jungle.  May they return safely, with or without achieving their goal!”

 

******

The adult volunteers slept more peacefully that night than the student volunteers who would join them in the search for Rifkin in the morning.  Revekian beer was an excellent sleep-aid, especially when drank to excess.  Rifkin had slept soundly in a sitting position for several hours, awakening with a stiff neck late at night.  After rising shakily to his feet and stretching his stiff neck, he stoked the fire, relieved to see the log only partially burned.  As the fire came back to life, he remembered his pleasant dream about Urlum.  So far nothing had disturbed him in his small shelter.  As he suspected, the universal fear of fire exhibited by animals was strong on Irignum.  There were a few insects that strayed into the fire as the jummi might do, but he remained safe and secure behind his barricade of flames. The cave he had selected was so shallow and small that only the smallest of the forest’s denizens could have lived in it.  He noticed in the firelight tracks and spore, probably from a scaly crawler or one of those small furry creatures darting through the forest.  On the wall, growing as a vine from an outside plant, he could also see tiny fruit sprouting from a cluster of leaves.

            For the first time since his ordeal began, Rifkin realized how very hungry and thirsty he was.  He had no way of knowing what was or wasn’t poisonous on this world.  More importantly he could not, even if it was safe to do so, eat one piece of its forbidden fruit nor, as he had done on his planet, lick the dew from the leaves of bushes and trees.  He was trapped in his life support system and shut off from the touch, taste and smells of Irignum…. Yet he was alive, he reminded himself.  A battery powered airconditioning unit in his life support system kept his body at a comfortable temperature regardless of the temperature outside.  His bodily wastes, broken down by chemicals, continued to accumulate, as always, in a canister in his suit.  His gas gauge, he noted with satisfaction, registered three quarters full.   Now that he thought about it, he realized he had probably used a fourth or fifth of his air supply during his climb.  According to the professor, a team member used far more gas during activity than during rest.  During sleep they would use even less.  The trick was to ration your use of gas by regulating your movement.   As he sat staring at his fire, he recalled Doctor Arkru’s lecture about the life support system and realized how difficult it was to follow his rules. 

His wrist communicator, though out of range of the ship’s computer, was filled with useful information, including the Doctor Arkru’s notes.   In the dim light, using the small magnifying glass stored in his communicator’s case, he brought up from his database the Five Cardinal Rules of Life Support System Use:

 

(1)               Frequently check your suit’s equipment and gauges (gas supply, air conditioning, radio, and waste management) to

         insure your survival during exploration.

 

(2)     While on foot and not in the crawler, move slowly and deliberately to avoid physical exertion in your suit.

 

(3)     Avoid jagged surfaces and corrosive material to maintain the integrity of the suit.

 

(4)               Never climb up a surface when you can go around it, for takes twice as much effort and therefore twice as much

        gas.

 

(5)               Though the life support system is watertight, avoid immersing it in water, since the suit was not designed for aquatic

         use. 

 

Staring intently at the screen, he felt comforted, if not edified, by the glow.  Now that his radio seemed dead, the small flourescent crystal was his last link to the ship.  He had never kept the first rule on the list, until this very hour, when he was forced to read his gauges, but it was the one rule he woud keep for now on.  To move slowly through the forest, however, as the second rule demanded seemed foolish, if he wanted to stay ahead of predators on his trail.  Twice now, out of sheer necessity, he had broken the third and forth rules—once with the professor and his classmates and now by himself, after climbing up the volcanic neck.  Not only did this feat break cardinal rule three’s command to avoid jagged surfaces but he had, contrary to the fouth rule, wasted much of his gas mixture climbing up the rock.  As the first rule to avoid excessive exercise, the rules to avoid jagged surfaces or unforeseen obstacles overlooked the realities of this world.  He laughed light-headedly now as he recalled how he broke rule five during his efforts to escape the river dragon.  That episode had cost him his radio and stunner.  So much for rules, he thought, switching off the screen.  Revekian rules don’t apply on this world! 

Due to a limited supply of gas, he had only so much time, and yet he had to move carefully and silently and, when necessary, quickly through the jungle to avoid predators along the way… unless, he mused lazily, settling back down against the cave wall… he could find a log and float down the river toward the ship.  That would take very little energy.  It would, give or take a water dragon or two, be safer than trying to find the crawler and his path through the trees.  On the other hand, the crawler still contained the remaining poles of Team Two’s trap and was the quickest way back to the ship.  His only other option was to climb back up the rock, build a fire and stay put on top until he was discovered by a rescue team.  This would force his shipmates to endanger their lives for him, the very notion filling him with shame.  It would also signal to the great flyer that he was available again as its meal.

“Yes,” he told himself, trying not to think of his hunger and thirst, “I have options.”  The question is, he thought, his eyelids falling to half-mast, which option will work the best, and which will allow me to live? 

This was, Rifkin knew from experience, not the leisurely timeless environment of Revekia or Beskol, where trial and error was possible due to a breathable atmosphere and friendlier environment.  This was Irignum, a planet of horrors and potential death at every turn.  Time was at a premium now.  When he finally fell back to sleep, it was not with the pleasant image of Urlum in his mind.  The darkness and terror he had envisioned followed him into slumber and he was tormented with nightmares for the remainder of the night.

 

******

            Awakening with a jolt after several hours of sleep, he looked about himself and realized that the first rays of sunlight were creeping finally through the trees.  The noises of the jungle, always the same it seemed, sounded much louder to him this morning.  The fire had almost gone out, its smoke a mere filament rising in front of the cave.  Without further hesitation now, Rifkin struggled to his feet and gingerly moved around the edge of the campfire, looking both ways before stepping out fully into the world outside his cave.  Looking back at his temporary shelter, he smiled fondly at his refuge.  Feeling a warmth for his cave that he couldn’t define, he set out carefully and watchfully down the animal-beaten path and looked back, after walking only a short distance, up to the rock.

Rifkin knew he couldn’t stay where he was.  His shipmates would never find him.  The notion of climbing back up to build a signal fire was also not an option.  Other than walk back to the ship in the hopes of being found or reaching the vessel on his own, it seemed he had only two other options: he could find his crawler, or, if this was impossible, somehow build a raft and float down the river through Zone One toward the ship.  As he retraced the path through the forest that had led to the volcanic neck, he realized how ridiculous his raft idea had been.  This feat, as building a fire on the rock, would be too big a task, if it was possible at all.  Returning to the scene to find the crawler where the river monster lay in wait, for that matter, filled him with dread.  Though the river dropped suddenly in a southernly direction, which brought it closer to the ship, it led him back through impenetrable jungle and a waterway ruled by water dragons.

            Suddenly, as he followed the beaten path, he felt an abrupt silence in the jungle and felt a rumbling below his feet reminiscent of earthquakes he had experienced on other worlds.  Stopping just long enough to watch, with horror, as several duckbilled creatures moved past him on all sides, he realized that a great leaper was chasing them and was heading his way.

            Thump-thump, thumpety-thump… RRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

            Rifkin looked around for cover, immediately scurried up a low-lying tree trunk nearby and managed to reach a point directly above the passing head of a tyrannosaurus in pursuit of its prey.  The tree that he had climbed up was host to countless smaller creatures who hissed and chattered at him now that he had disturbed their nests.  A tiny snake slithered over his arm just as a giant cockroach appeared suddenly on his leg.  Small furry creatures skittered and scampered above.  More fearful of the creature below than those in the trees right now, Rifkin ignored the reptile and insect as they crawled over him on their way up the tree.  He also ignored the menacing hiss of a large lizard on an adjacent limb and a pair of primitive feathered flyers, who squawked at him and dive bombed his head.  When the sound of the charging leaper had died down and it appeared as if the threat had passed, Rifkin reluctantly slid and climbed down the tree.

            The sounds of the jungle, were, he realized abstractedly, mainly from feathered flyers.  Their constant chirps, whistles, and squawks had already returned now that the tyrannosaurus was gone, but he knew there were countless predators roaming around quietly in the forest and flying overhead.  There simply were no safe paths in the jungle.  In spite of his misgiving about returning to the river, he decided to concentrate on finding the crawler, which might be his only hope of getting out of the forest alive.

 

******

            Breakfast for the ships’ company this morning was noisy and chaotic.  The student and technician volunteers did not share the carefree enthusiasm for adventure of the officers who had volunteered for the operation.  The cavalier attitude of the officers toward this enterprise irked Rifkin’s colleagues.  Arkru’s thought that the last minute wagering at the breakfast tables between Imwep, Kogin, and Remgen on who would “fry the most beasties,” shouldn’t have been tolerated by the commander.  The most irksome event occurring to the professor this morning, however, was when Falon informed him that Chief Engineer Dazl would be on his team.  Unless he left Alafa or Jitso behind, which he refused to do, Arkru would now have a five-member team, when the commander knew perfectly well that the crawler was designed for only four.  The precedent had already been set, the commander reminded him, when the class took its safari into Zone Three.  At that time, Urlum had been squeezed in between two technicians, Ibris and Tobit, a fact that had slipped the professor’s mind.  Moreover, according to Falon, it was important that the operation be done quickly and expeditiously, but it must also be done right.  Dazl could fix the crawlers if anything went wrong.  Falon also insisted that Varik, the assistant medic, go along with Rescue Team One, since they were the most likely to find Rifkin today.

            “Both of these additions,” Arkru whispered heatedly to Zorig, “are merely excuses for them to join in the sport!”

            Not wanting to create dissention, the professor swallowed his anger and concentrated on the students and technicians sitting around the room.  He felt very paternalistic toward them now.  He had promised their parents, who were left behind on their dying world, that he would teach them the mysteries of the universe, so that someday, when they grew up, they would become scientists and collectors just like him.  He had also promised to take care of their children on the trip.  It seemed clear to him this hour that he had failed to keep this promise to Rifkin’s parents, who had such high expectations for their son.

            Fortunately for many of the parents, only half of the children could actually serve as volunteers on rescue teams regardless if they volunteered or not.  Urlum, who was sick with worry, was refused a place in a rescue team.  Omrik, Yorzl, Lumnal, Zeppa, and Grummel (who seemed mentally unbalanced) were also excused from service with little argument on their parts. The professor decided, they would be put to work helping Ibris and Tobit build the enclosures when the rescue operation was complete.

            Vimml, Arkru recalled with disgust, would have been permanently restricted to the ship after his performance yesterday with Rescue Team One had Rezwit not made such a fuss.  Now he was on Rezwit’s team and would be carrying a weapon.  In a decision that also filled him with misgivings, he authorized the remaining five students, including Illiakim, and Shizwit, who had not yet proven their marksmanship to the professor, to carry guns.  Zither and Rezwit, who would act as guides for Rescue Teams One and Three, respectively, would assist himself and the officers in supervising Illiakim and Shizwit, the novice weapon-carriers.  Arkru had lost a great deal of confidence in the hotheaded Rezwit and the faltering Zither.  Alafa had showed a dark side to herself in her actions during Collection Team Three’s nearly disastrous performance in Zone Three.  Since Alafa would be on the professor’s team, Arkru was not worried about her behavior this time, but he wasn’t so sure about the others.  What if Rezwit lost his temper with Remgen, as he had yesterday with Zither, and went berserk?  He might end up blowing them all up with one of the bombs.  What if Imwep and Kogin placed Zither and Illiakim in danger by their exploits?  Would Zither have the sense or courage to call him for help over the radio or would he become fearfully tongue-tied and mute as he had the day before?

            Only Rescue Team Two, which the professor commanded, himself inspired Arkru with any confidence at all.  Zorig’s Rescue Team Four, which contained almost all of his technicians, were all certified to use the stunner, and yet Zorig, of all the leaders selected, was the most reluctant of them to go.

            The professor had done everything he could think of to minimize the potential for conflict and danger today.  Since Rezwit couldn’t get along with Zither, he was moved to Remgen’s team and was replaced by Illiakim, who had fit in well with Zither and Collection Team Two.  Although it seemed logical to place Shizwit with her old friend Zither, the professor felt that she might have some influence over the easily provoked Rezwit and unstable Vimml too.  He was, on second thought, not so sure about this now.  Rezwit, like Rifkin, hated authority, and Vimml could be downright incorrigible.  Over this potentially volatile group, Falon had placed Remgen, whom he felt would make them all behave.  It was Arkru’s fervent prayer that the first mate could do just that, but he would feel much better right now if Vimml was staying on the ship and Rezwit was not carrying a gun.

            Rescue Team Two, the professor had learned last night, would have to put up with Chief Engineer Dazl, who wanted “his time in the jungle” before they left Irignum behind.  Arkru wished he could have argued with Falon about this, but relations were already worn thin between the two leaders.  Whether they liked it or not, Imwep, Kogin, Zither, and Illiakim would be accompanied by the medic Varik, who considered himself to be an excellent marksmen but, like Dazl, had no business on this trip.  The two reluctant technicians, Ibris and Tobit, would ride with their leader Zorig on patrol, with volunteer Hobi, who was a fairly good marksman, and was the only full fledged adult aboard Rescue Team Four.

            Orix, as some of the other officers, had wanted his experience in the forest too, but the commander could ill afford to lose his navigator for Rifkin’s sake.  Eglin, the ship’s doctor, the chef Wurbl, and the Communications Officer Abwur were also not expendable and were denied the privilege to volunteer.  Although Jitso had been the first member in ship’s stores to volunteer for Rescue Team Two and Hobi had quickly volunteered to accompany Zorig in Rescue Team Four, their good friend Gennep happily declined the opportunity.  He was satisfied to join the student shut-ins and other reluctant crewmen in acting as a cheering section for the rescuers when they disembarked.

            Virtually none of Falon’s officers believed they would find the young student alive.  Their main reason for going out with the teams, Falon and Arkru clearly understood, was for the sake of adventure.  They now had guns and bombs to play with and a vast jungle for such recreation before returning to their humdrum occupations aboard ship.  Some of them had actually made wagers against Rifkin chances for survival with their shipmates.  Perhaps no one but the professor and Urlum believed he would be found at all.

 

 

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